Archive for 'Skepticism & beliefs'
Harry Houdini was an escape artist, magician, and showman. He was also an important skeptic famous for exposing the simply tricks used by mediums of his time. This article explains why we should light a candle to Harry on Hallowe’en.
Houdini’s careers in magic as well as escapology, aviator, filmmaker and movie star, author, book collector, and magic historian, are all fodder for fascinating stories in their own right. But we should particularly honor, this and every Hallowe’en, his career as a skeptic. While the link between magic and skepticism preceded Houdini by at least three centuries in the written record alone (marked with the publication of the classic Elizabethan text, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, in 1584), and other magicians of the Edwardian era spoke out stridently against spiritualism both in the United States and Great Britain, nevertheless, Houdini crystallized the role of the magician in critical thinking, and the importance of having qualified magicians present when investigating self-proclaimed psychics.
This is an interesting article about the beliefs held by police and safety professionals, and the actual behavior of crowds in emergency situations. Contrary to the myths, people tend to act rationally and cooperate when faced with a crisis.
Research shows that people typically shown signs of collective resilience in emergency situations. Promisingly, the professional groups recognised that emergency crowds are often cooperative; that acts of heroism often occur; that people use their local knowledge to aid their escape; and that people often underestimate the risk they face. On this last point, it was clear that many participants in this study held directly contradictory beliefs about crowd behaviour given, as mentioned, that many had also endorsed the idea of people overestimating threats.
Here is a disturbing article from the National Post on how some municipalities are practicing anti-science under pressure from fringe groups.
In the past few years, towns, villages and cities throughout Canada have passed a wave of laws that could well be described as “anti-science.” Water fluoridation bans. Anti-WiFi resolutions. GE free zones. The decisions often fly in the face of scientific consensus, ignore the advice of experts and lend legitimacy to groups once considered fringe.
But, as activists are starting to discover, science does not matter when a city hall meeting is facing a room full of angry townsfolk.
Wired Science is reported that a Tennessee court has thrown out lie detection “evidence” from brain scans because it was unscientific. The defendant had offered the scans as proof that he was not lying about defrauding the government over Medicare payments.
The defense tried to use brain scans of the defendant to prove its client had not intentionally defrauded the government. In a 39-page opinion, Judge Tu Pham provided both a rebuke of this kind of fMRI evidence now, and a roadmap for how future defendants may be able to satisfy the Daubert standard, which governs the admissibility of scientific evidence.
It is particularly important to note that the company actually violated their own protocols during the scan. After two tests produced different results, the testing was repeated a third time until the desire result was obtained.
“Dr. Semrau risked nothing in having the testing performed, and Dr. Laken himself testified that had the results not been favorable to Dr. Semrau, they would have never been released,” Pham noted.
A military supplier has been making lots of money selling dowsing-like devices to troops in Iraq that are supposed to detect explosives and other nasty materials. They devices come equipped with different programming cards to customize the substances they search for.
There has been speculation that the devices are fake and the programming cards don’t do anything. Now comes an analysis of the cards by careful dis-assembly, and the results are predictable…
There is no way in which this device could be programmed to distinguish the many different substances that the ADE651 manufacturer claimed it could, not to mention that any useful interaction with such an LC circuit would require a transmitter antenna, a power source, and lots of other components that the ADE651 appears to lack.
It seems that the military in Iraq has discovered a magical way to detect bombs, and they are spending millions of dollars to deploy it a checkpoints around the country.
The technology, however, is well known to be the equivalent of a dowsing rod and it is completely useless. Making fun of other people’s stupid beliefs can be fun, but when lives are on the line you have to be concerned.
More from the NY Times:
Despite major bombings that have rattled the nation, and fears of rising violence as American troops withdraw, Iraq’s security forces have been relying on a device to detect bombs and weapons that the United States military and technical experts say is useless.
The small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel, is being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq. But the device works “on the same principle as a Ouija board” — the power of suggestion — said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who described the wand as nothing more than an explosives divining rod.
Here is an important article from the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society. J.D. Haines, a doctor and professor from the University of Oklahoma, describes the numerous cases where neck manipulations done by chiropractors have led to death and serious neurological injuries.
When Kristi Bedenbaugh wanted relief from a bad sinus headache, the 24 year-old former beauty queen and medical office administrator made the mistake of consulting a chiropractor. An autopsy performed on Kristi revealed that the manipulation of her neck had split the inner walls of both vertebral arteries, resulting in a fatal stroke.
The real tragedy is that cervical spine manipulation is totally worthless in treating problems like Kristi Bedenbaugh’s. So, however rare the incidence of adverse outcome, the risk always outweighs any perceived benefit. There is no medically proven benefit whatsoever to chiropractic manipulation of the cervical spine.
The public is led to believe that physicians disparage chiropractors out of some sort of professional jealousy. Yet there is only one reason that physicians judge chiropractors so harshly. Medicine is scientifically based, whereas chiropractic is not supported by a single legitimate scientific study.
An interesting article from Psychology Today reporting on survey research in the US. It seems that when people were asked questions like “I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group”, the most detested group were atheists. The were consistently rated lower than various religious groups (e.g., muslims, Christians, Jews) and racial groups (e.g., Hispanics, Asians).
Suppose that we had an extraordinarily accomplished would-be President who proclaimed her atheism. Let us assume that this person is a great orator; a righteous person with great personal integrity; a speaker of four languages; and a Nobel laureate. If she were to declare that she does not believe in the existence of a “celestial dictator” (to borrow the term from the remarkable Christopher Hitchens), she would be automatically deemed unfit to serve in political office and/or to date your son.
Does “Cressie” swim the waters of Crescent Lake in Newfoundland? Sightings of this giant creature have been reported for years, much like the Loch Ness monster, but no evidence has been found. In this article from Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell goes in search of the elusive creature.
Sightings of a “monster” in the lake date back to the turn of the last century when a resident known as “Grandmother Anthony” spied a giant serpentine creature while she was picking berries. From the 1940s to the present, there have been a dozen or so sightings, although without photographs to date. Most descriptions are of a dark, eel-like creature, up to twenty-five or more feet long.
Here is a new video from James (“The Amazing”) Randi on the role that the media plays in supporting nonsensical beliefs. In this clip Randi retells the story of The Carlos Hoax, where an actor posed as a psychic channeler and was able to garner all kinds of attention and free publicity from the Australian media. The story is important because it exposes the ease with which the media can be influenced to support unsubstantiated claims, frauds, or hoaxes as long as the story is interesting enough.
Here is a description of the impact from The Skeptic’s Dictionary:
For Alvarez, the creation of the character “Carlos” was a performance/experiment to see how far he could take his creation, but his purpose was not to make people look foolish. He hoped to liberate them from a false belief. However, the result of the performance seemed to demonstrate how easy it is to create a cult from scratch and how, even when the truth is revealed to them, some still refuse to accept it. The “Carlos” hoax also demonstrated how gullible and uncritical the mass media are when covering paranormal or supernatural topics. Rather than having an interest in exposing the truth, the members of the media were obsessed with “Carlos” the phenomenon and transformed his character from a hoax to a myth.